Can GOP Tolerate “Moderate” Wing?

I know I spend a fair amount of time criticizing David Brooks’ New York Times columns here, and for good reason. But his latest essay is interesting. After accurately describing the dominant movement-conservative tendency in the GOP as incapable of genuine “reinvention,” so gripped is it by an unreasoning anti-government ideology, Brooks calls for a “second GOP:”

It’s probably futile to try to change current Republicans. It’s smarter to build a new wing of the Republican Party, one that can compete in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, in the upper Midwest and along the West Coast. It’s smarter to build a new division that is different the way the Westin is different than the Sheraton.

Brooks isn’t particularly clear on the ideology of this “second GOP,” aside from the suggestion that it would not view government as the inherent enemy of social and economic progress and “wealth-creators” as eternal saviors. Yes, he goes on to endorse a dual focus on reform of “sclerotic institutions” and on the cultural dysfunction he considers the cause of economic inequality. But how that translates into an agenda is a bit iffy to say the least.

The more immediate question is whether the first GOP that Brooks is now writing off as incapable of talking to “people who didn’t already vote for them” is going to tolerate a second GOP?

The regions he speaks of as the home territory for the “second GOP” do have a few heretics in plain sight, like Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine, though even they followed the “first GOP” in opposing Obamacare, that great testament to past Republican policy thinking. But Collins’ Maine also elected rabid Tea Partier Paul LePage governor in 2010. And Republicans in parts of the “upper Midwest” are increasingly indistinguishable from the South ideologically, as evidenced by Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker (not to mention Rep. Paul Ryan). In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder campaigned as a moderate in 2010, but fell into line when conservatives demanded a state right-to-work law, that great totem of southern reactionaries.

As for the West Coast, Republicans in Oregon and Washington may be marginally more moderate than they are elsewhere. In the biggest state, California, Carly Fiorina disposed of reputed moderate Tom Campbell in a 2010 Republican Senate primary by depicting him as a “demon sheep” crypto-liberal, and Meg Whitman–who was at least pro-choice–bludgeoned state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner into submission with millions of dollars worth of ads calling him a big spender and an ally of “liberal unions.”

The supposed homelands of a second, moderate GOP leave a lot to be desired.

But the larger obstacle to a “second GOP” is that conservatives nationally have devoted massive resources to the argument that the Republican Party’s single biggest problem is the eternal perfidy of “RINOs” who are forever stabbing “true conservatives” in the back. So any effort to organize a significant band of moderates, even one based on the idea of letting Republicans in hostile territory hunt where the ducks are, will simply fuel the Right’s determination to stamp out dissent. And that is why, as I argued just after the election, there’s no real base for a DLC-style group of “centrist dissenters” on the other side of the aisle.

Brooks ends his column with a question he clearly can’t answer: “Who’s going to build a second G.O.P.?” Certainly none of the pols who spent the 2012 presidential primaries, and will spend the 2016 presidential primaries, attacking each other for insufficient fidelity to the “true conservative” cause.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.